Jury Finds Conception's Captain Guilty of "Neglect" for 34 Deaths

The fire aboard the Conception killed 34 people, making it the worst American maritime disaster in decades (Santa Barbara Fire Department)

Published Nov 6, 2023 10:51 PM by The Maritime Executive

The captain of the ill-fated dive boat Conception, which burned and sank off California four years ago, has been convicted of the charge of misconduct or neglect of a ship's officer in connection with the deaths of 34 people aboard his vessel. 

In the early hours of September 2, 2019, the Conception was anchored off Santa Cruz Island at Platt's Harbor. 33 passengers and six crewmembers were aboard for a dive excursion over Labor Day Weekend. A fire broke out in the vessel's salon area and quickly spread, engulfing the vessel and trapping all passengers and one crewmember belowdecks. 

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, Capt. Jerry Nehl Boylan's failure to post an overnight roving watchman was a key element in the tragedy: the crew only discovered the fire after it had grown substantially, reducing the odds of saving the vessel and its passengers. Prosecutors also claimed that the crew was inadequately trained to fight fires, and that one deckhand had run past a fire hose twice without realizing it. 

Boylan and the crewmembers sleeping abovedecks all abandoned ship and survived the casualty, and prosecutors claimed that Boylan was the first to jump over the side. All 34 people in the belowdecks berthing area died of smoke inhalation, and the boat burned to the waterline and sank. 

Charging documents accused Boylan of a "failure to perform any lifesaving or firefighting activities whatsoever at the time of the fire, even though he was uninjured." During the trial, prosecutors showed the jury a time-stamped video recovered from one of the victims' phones, replaying their conversation as the fire approached. The time stamp showed that the passengers were still alive three minutes after Boylan made the distress call. 

Boylan pleaded not guilty, though his defense attorneys acknowledged that he had not posted a roving watchstander. In court, they pointed out that less than 45 minutes elapsed between the time that the last crewmember went to sleep and the time that the Conception made a distress call to report the fire, and emphasized that the vessel went without an alert crewmember for only a short period. They also laid the blame on the vessel operator, Truth Aquatics, and accused the company of having a lax safety culture. 

The jury began deliberations on Monday and quickly returned a verdict, finding the captain guilty. Boylan, 69, faces a maximum sentence of up to 10 years in prison. 

"I think, most importantly, is the message this sends to other [California dive boat] captains, many of whom admitted operating recklessly," said family member James Adamic in an interview with CBS. Adamic lost his son, daughter and granddaughter in the casualty. 

Families of some of the deceased passengers and crew continue to pursue a separate case against the U.S. Coast Guard, claiming that the agency under-enforced its safety rules.